Science Fiction & Fantasy




Contractual Obligation

Blue Six and the rest of the grunts power up to battle-ready at T-minus fourteen hours. They don’t need much lead time before action; even if the squad’s fully shut down, it takes them less than ten minutes to get operational. No, the extra time isn’t for the grunts, it’s for the officer.

Captain Yamada’s in the fridge. He’s been in there since the space freighter left the last neutral station at L5, a hundred days ago. It takes three hours just to raise his body temperature to normal, another couple of hours for muscle stimulation. Releasing some fluids and taking in others. Cleaning off the outer layer. It’s not until T-minus seven hours that Yamada steps through the pressure membrane into the embrace of his armor.

In battle dress, the officer looks almost like one of the grunts. They’re a mixed bunch anyway. Blue One’s a superheavy class, two metric tons of armor and power plant wrapped around a hypervelocity rail gun and a thousand-round magazine. Blue Two and Three are standard heavies, armed with autofire grenade launchers and weighing in at just over three hundred kilos each. Four and Five are low-profile scuttlers, only fifty kilos, with caseless submachine guns and extra limbs tipped with multitools. Blue Six is a point-defense specialist, with twin lasers and an elaborate sensor suite—which also makes it the electronic-warfare unit and primary communications node by default. All the grunts share a single distributed intelligence, but at any given time, most of it’s running on processors inside Blue Six.

When he’s functional and suited up, Yamada runs through the list of mission parameters one last time. He toggles the rules of engagement settings from “WEAPONS FREE” to “HUMAN SAFE.”

That gets the squad’s attention. “That isn’t in the contract, Captain.”

“Which means I’m free to decide. I want to make this as bloodless as possible.”

“Yes, Captain.” The squad can do non-lethal. It means they can still shoot other robots, and that’s the important thing. If you have to rely on human troops, you’ve lost the battle.

Six hours out, the freighter’s eyes can see the target: Anfa Habitat. From the freighter’s angle, it looks like a dark flower against the Sun’s disk. Anfa Habitat is a giant sphere a kilometer across, with six big solar panels stretching out from the equator. The docking hub’s down at the “dark pole” of the sphere, with four docking tubes sticking out at right angles. Beyond the docking hub, a long boom stretches a hundred meters or so into the sphere’s shadow, with big radiator fins running down each side and the backup power reactor at the far end. Anfa orbits the Sun sixty degrees ahead of Venus, so the radiators are glowing bright infrared as they dump the habitat’s excess heat.

Anfa control takes over the freighter soon after—or at least Yamada allows them to think they have. The controllers inside Anfa do a good job. There’s a hard braking burn to shift the freighter from its transfer orbit to match vectors with the habitat, and then some short burns and rotations to line up with the docking tube. There’s no voice chatter from the controllers; according to the manifest, this is a load of humanitarian supplies.

Docking clamps thump together right at T-minus zero, and now it’s time to move. Yamada pops the external cargo hatch—not the one connected to the docking tube—and the whole squad goes out onto the hull, moving fast. Blue One takes up a position behind the hatch to provide covering fire; Six joins it to act as spotter. The other four surge forward along the outside of the docking tube, followed by Yamada.

Having the officer out on the front line is part of the plan, but the squad thinks it’s a bad idea. A battle’s no place for humans. The captain could keep his fragile biological butt parked back in the relative safety of the freighter and stay in the loop by telepresence. But this job requires some diplomacy, and faceless killing machines are still getting the hang of that.

Blue Six scans the battlespace and picks out possible targets. The biggest danger is Anfa’s main defense lasers, located at the tips of three of the solar panels. The lasers can vaporize one of the grunts with a single shot, which is why the squad is keeping the metal docking tube between themselves and the habitat. But Anfa might have free-flying drones with laser mirrors, so Six watches the sky for anything moving.

There! A small shape moving against the stars. It’s dark, which puts it in the shadow of the habitat. Close, then. The squad’s multiple eyes triangulate, and Blue One takes aim.

Yamada’s orders are clear: No combat of any kind until he gives the word. Don’t let the enemy know there’s a battle going on until it’s won. So Blue Six keeps watching the drone, pinging alerts at the officer to make sure he sees it, too.

More targets! Four maintenance drones come scuttling along the docking tube from the hub.

“Engage engage engage!” Yamada orders. “Damn.”

Before the captain has time to inhale again after speaking, Blue One hits the mirror drone with a chunk of depleted uranium going three kilometers per second, and Blue Two through Five each blow a maintenance bot to twinkling fragments. Six scans every surface in sight, looking for cameras and blinding them.

Now it’s time to get fast. While the debris clouds are still expanding, the squad sprints up the tube to the docking hub. The officer must be juicing his sluggish biological nervous system with something, because he’s only a second behind.

The maintenance drones came out of a hatch at the docking hub, where the four tubes meet. It’s a typical membrane, but an armored door is swinging shut as they reach it. Blue One grabs the edge of the aluminum door, and for three long seconds there’s a contest between the big bot and the motor in the door hinge, but sheer power wins out and the hatch jerks open again.

The team goes through the membrane faster than it can seal around them, and the habitat loses a couple of cubic meters of air before it regenerates. Six identifies and destroys more eyes on the inside walls. Two covers the hatch in case someone else comes at them from outside. The rest of the team launch themselves across the inside of the docking hub to secure the connection to the habitat.

Another metal hatch has already sealed off that direction, but that’s perfectly fine with the squad. If they can’t get into the main habitat, nothing can come out, either. One and Three cover that approach. Yamada and the two smallest team members head for the thick conduit that runs through the center of the docking hub, connecting the habitat to the radiator fin beyond. Four and Five remove the casing and expose the heavily insulated pipes inside. Two of the pipes are dazzlingly hot on infrared, even inside layers of fiberglass and foil.

Four and Five install the squad’s insurance policy: modest demolition charges, just powerful enough to sever the coolant lines. All the pipes get two, including the backups. Now if the officer says a particular command—or if his suit stops sending a particular code series to the bombs—they’ll go off, and Anfa Habitat won’t have any way to shed waste heat. Thirteen thousand people will slowly cook in the relentless fury of the Sun.

The squad has downloads of Anfa’s emergency plans. It’ll be a race between work drones and thermodynamics. The squad estimates at least ten percent of the human inhabitants will die, and there’s a small but non-trivial chance that all of them will.

The Anfa forces have assembled outside. A trio of drones dive in through the membrane at the same instant that a shaped charge turns the center of the steel hatch into a jet of molten metal that hits Blue Three right in the ammunition magazine. Some of the grenades in Three’s magazine cook off, blowing the bot apart.

For a moment the squad becomes a group of autonomous individuals while the group AI reconfigures itself. When it does, the squad can’t plan quite as far ahead and its guesses are a little less precise.

Blue One fires a hail of depleted uranium through the space where Three had been standing, shredding whatever’s on the other side of the hatch. Six blinds the drones coming in the other way, and Two finishes them off with sticky grenades.

Captain Yamada’s broadcasting on all the voice channels. “Anfa, I will destroy your cooling system if you don’t stand down at once!”

There’s a pause, and then a human voice comes over one of the channels. “All right. We’ll cease fire.”

“Understood,” says Yamada, though the squad’s still ready to slag anything that tries to get into the hub. “I’m a licensed contractor working for the Deimos Community. This is a legal military operation. All I want is one person. Give me Dr. Julius Wassel. I have orders to remove him from this habitat. He will not be harmed.”

There’s a pause of about a minute. “We can’t let you take Dr. Wassel against his will.”

“I’m not leaving without him.”

“Even if you do sabotage the radiator, you won’t get away from Anfa alive,” the other human points out.

“I’d rather end this with no loss of life at all,” says Yamada. “Give me Wassel, I’ll leave, and nobody gets hurt.”

“We can’t just hand him over,” says the voice. “Dr. Wassel is a citizen and a shareholder. He’s got rights.”

“How about you let me talk to him directly?”

There’s a long delay, and then a new voice comes on. “This is Julius Wassel speaking. Are you really prepared to commit mass murder?”

“I was hired to do a job, Dr. Wassel,” says Yamada. “I’m trying to use minimum force to get it done. This is a legal military operation. Would you rather my squad tried to fight through the habitat to find you? If you come along with me, I promise you will not be harmed.”

“Where do you plan to take me?”

“I can’t reveal that. But you’ll be treated extremely well. My employers think your research is very important, and they want to help you continue your work. I’m sure you’ll have more resources than you do here.”

“I came to Anfa to get away from all that,” says Wassel. “Both sides in this ridiculous war are repulsive to me. Ideological fanatics fighting amoral exploiters, with mercenaries doing the dirty work.”

“I’m just a contractor,” says Yamada. “Look, I know they’ve probably asked you to keep me talking while they fab up more weapons, so I’m afraid I have to cut this short. I’m starting a ten-minute timer on my bombs now. If Dr. Wassel comes down here before they go off, I’ll shut them off and leave in peace.”

The captain cuts the link and rearranges the squad. The two open hatches are sealed only by pressure membranes, and just about anything could punch through that. He puts Four and Five to work pulling up wall and floor panels to obstruct any line of sight through the hatches. Six watches the door into space, while the other two cover the link to the main habitat.

The timer ticks down to five minutes, then four, then three. The squad’s ability to predict human behavior is limited, but elementary game theory suggests that once the coolant lines are severed and the habitat’s temperature starts to rise, there’s absolutely nothing to prevent Anfa’s lasers from vaporizing the captain and the grunts. That’s a known risk.

The count’s at one minute forty seconds when there’s a knock on the partition blocking the hatchway into the main habitat. Yamada sends Four to have a peek. Two humans in skinsuits are floating just this side of the membrane.

“I only want Dr. Wassel,” says Yamada.

“Pando, it’s me. Gradara,” says one of the humans.

For a moment the officer’s bio readings go nuts, and the squad considers the possibility the enemy has managed to hit him with some kind of biochemical agent. But before the squad can shift into autonomous mode, he drops back within normal parameters.

“Come in, both of you,” says the captain. He halts the timer.

The squad lets them pass the partition, and Six looks inside both of them with backscatter X-rays and sound pulses. You can learn a lot about someone that way. Wassel’s a male human, with too much abdominal fat and an artificial pancreas. Gradara’s a female with unusual muscle density; all the bones in one leg plus a forearm and some ribs are carbon-fiber rebuilds. Her bio readings are a lot less elevated than Wassel’s.

“I thought you were dead,” says Yamada.

“I wanted a new start. There were people I didn’t want following me,” she says.

“What are you doing here?”

“I live here, Pando. I’m a shareholder and a citizen. Back when Earth and Deimos started this epic pissing contest, I decided to get as far away from the war zone as I could. Anfa looked like a good place. Low strategic value, underpopulated—or at least it was when I got here. Now we’ve got more people than the place was built to support. Thirteen thousand people will cook if you set off those charges.”

The officer is silent for nearly a second. Then, “What about you, Dr. Wassel? Are you ready to leave?”

“If I have no alternative,” says Wassel.

“See?” Captain Yamada tells the woman called Gradara. “He’s perfectly willing. Nobody has to get hurt.”

“I’ve got a counter-offer,” says Gradara. “Stay here. Anfa can buy out your contract.”

Yamada takes a couple of seconds to answer. “What would I do here? I’m a soldier.”

“There may be other raids. Obviously we need better defenses. You could help set them up.”

“Are you part of the deal?”

“No promises, Pando.”

Just then the space freighter’s antenna picks up a transmission and bounces it to the squad. The message is from Deimos, and the authentications check out. The group mind judges it significant and passes it along to the officer. Captain Yamada spends ten seconds reading it, and his bio readings go nuts again for a couple of seconds.


Evidently the owners back inside Deimos have decided to get serious. Maybe Wassel’s important enough to be worth denying to anyone else. Or maybe Anfa’s pissed them off some other way. It doesn’t affect the tactical situation, so the squad doesn’t waste any more time thinking about it.

Yamada seems very concerned, though. He asks the woman, “Does Anfa have any other spacecraft? Anything with interplanetary range?”

“We used to have a couple of interplanetary shuttles, but Earth grabbed one and blew up the other. Why?”

“I want you to come with me,” he says.

“And what will you blow up if I refuse?”

“No demands. I want you to come with me. When we were together, back on Luna—were you happy?”

“I was very happy,” she says. “But I was tired of being a gun for hire. I was ready to quit. And you weren’t.”

“You never said anything.”

“I didn’t need to. I could see it. You weren’t ready then, and look at you now: You’re a successful contractor—are you ready to give it up now? Shut down your squad, disarm the bombs and stay here?”

“No,” says Yamada. He switches to a private channel, but the squad can still hear his end over the command link.

“Can you fab up a hibernation chamber? You can ride in that.” Pause. “It’s not safe for you to stay here. I can’t tell you why.” Pause. “You need to leave now. Come with me.”

He switches back to the squad. “What’s the status on our vehicle? Can we make it to Deimos with an extra human on board?”

“No,” says the squad. “Mission profile is zero-margin. There’s only enough life support consumables to get you and Wassel to Deimos.”

“Can my suit keep me in stasis long enough to reach Deimos?”

“No. It’s more than seven months in transit. Your suit’s only rated for sixty hours.”

“What if we hook my suit up to the ship’s systems?”

“Daily failure probability tops fifty percent in less than a month.”

Yamada switches back to his private link with Gradara. “You need to get a hibernation chamber down here in half an hour, and enough consumables for seven months.” The squad can’t hear her answer, but Yamada’s stress levels rise even higher. “They must have one somewhere! In the hospital, maybe?”

Fifty minutes left.

Wassel speaks up again. “Captain Yamada, I’m not sure what’s going on. Would you rather take Ms. Gradara with you instead of me?”

“No! I have to get you to Deimos. That’s the mission. I’m sorry, Doctor, but you’re coming no matter what. I’m just trying to find a way to bring her as well.”

“Are you collecting Anfa shareholders?”

Yamada ignores him and switches back to the link with the squad. “Can the spacecraft reach any inhabited body or habitat with three humans aboard?”

After a moment’s calculation the squad replies, “Adding another hibernation unit increases the mass too much to reach Deimos. The best trajectory puts us at the Earth leading Trojan point. That requires a gravity assist from Venus and takes more than two years. Note that the leading Trojan habitats are hostile, and may not exist by the time we reach them. That would constitute a mission failure.”

“Is there any way we can get off this hab with three people?”

“Captain, that’s outside the mission parameters. You’re supposed to acquire Dr. Wassel and evacuate. Ms. Gradara isn’t part of the plan.”

“I’m not leaving Gradara here. Consider the plan amended.”

Captain Yamada’s stress levels are still rising. He talks to the woman again, and he forgets to encrypt the connection. “You’ve got to make them fab you a hibernation unit. We need it in—shit, less than forty-five minutes.”

“Pando, I’ve got a good life here. I don’t want to come with you.”

“You’ve got to come! This place is going to be a cloud of debris in less than an hour.”

That’s a breach of operational security, and Blue Six starts area jamming to keep Gradara and Wassel from communicating with anyone outside the docking hub.

“You can’t do that!” says Wassel.

“It’s not my decision. The kill vehicles are already inbound and I don’t have any way to stop them. I’m trying to get the three of us out of here alive. Do either of you have any ideas?”

Gradara isn’t saying anything. She’s trying to link up with the station network, but Six isn’t going to let that happen.

“Captain, you’re no longer following the mission plan. You’re showing signs of psychological incapacity,” the squad tells Yamada.

“I’m fine!” Yamada takes a deep breath and tells his armor to hit him with a dose of tranquilizer. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to take these two humans back to the spacecraft and put them in the hibernation units. I’ll ride in my suit; I’ll take the risk of failure. Now let’s get going!”

The squad goes into action. The group AI invokes medical override and orders Yamada’s armor to knock him out with a sedative. Four and Five grab Wassel and head for the exit. Blue One covers them.

The officer is clearly not fit for command.

One decision left to make. Normally it would be simple, but there are conflicting orders involved, and the squad wants to comply with Yamada’s last instructions if possible. “Ms. Gradara, in your opinion, will Captain Yamada suffer any permanent psychological impairment as a result of your death?”

She looks right at Three, which is still covering her with a grenade launcher, then at Yamada floating unconscious in his armor. A couple of seconds go by before she answers. “Yes,” she says. “I don’t think he’ll get over it.” Her pulse and respiration are steady.

Three and Six escort her to the spacecraft and help her into the hibernation unit. They leave Yamada behind, floating unconscious in his armor. The squad dumps all of its memories into the spacecraft; then the bots shut down for good. Undocking is perfectly smooth, and nobody gets lasered. The spacecraft is a thousand kilometers away when the kill vehicles hit. Thirteen thousand bodies spill into vacuum.

A successful mission, under the terms of the contract.

Gradara’s a little muzzy from the hibernation drugs kicking in when she contacts the squad before going down for a seven-month nap. “Hey, you guys looking for a new officer? I used to be pretty good.”

“Are there any emotional or psychological issues which might impair your effectiveness?”

“No,” she says. “Not anymore.”

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

James L. Cambias

James L. Cambias’s first novel, A Darkling Sea, was published by Tor Books in 2014, followed by Corsair in 2015. His short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Shimmer, Nature, and several anthologies. Mr. Cambias has written for Steve Jackson Games, Hero Games, and other game companies, and is a partner in Zygote Games. His most recent game title is Weird War I, from Pinnacle Entertainment Group. He blogs at